When Edmund Wells, 67, stepped out of a white Department of Corrections van at a South Jersey train station last week, he didn’t know where he was, where he came from, or where he was going.
“I don’t know what happened,” Wells said, clutching a folder with discharge papers from the prison where he was released. “All I know is they took me from jail and took me to another place.”
Wells’s release was part of an unprecedented effort by New Jersey officials to protect prisoners and corrections staff from COVID-19 behind bars, where social distancing is impossible. New Jersey has the highest coronavirus prison death rate in the country—at least 52 inmates and three prison staffers have died of the disease—prompting Governor Phil Murphy to sign a bill to release thousands of inmates early. Last Wednesday, this extraordinary experiment began when 2,200 people — who were within eight months of their scheduled release dates — either walked through prison gates or were dropped off at transit centers.
Despite new laws mandating additional help for those leaving prison — and enhanced efforts by state agencies to provide aid — the state still fell short, social service agencies and reentry workers told Gothamist/WNYC.
What the formerly incarcerated required most was something only the state can provide: legal IDs. Without official identification cards, the men can’t rent apartments, secure health benefits, apply for food and welfare benefits, fill out job applications, or access medicine, such as Suboxone to treat heroin addiction. In Pennsauken, a volunteer drove one freed prisoner to cash a check, but his temporary prison ID didn’t suffice at either a bank or a check cashing location.
This wasn’t the way the massive release was supposed to roll out. Earlier this year Murphy signed a law requiring offenders receive a non-driver photo ID from the Motor Vehicle Commission. And state officials loosened some of the bureaucratic knots to make it easier for prisoners to apply for food stamps and general assistance before they leave.
But the DOC said only 319 non-driver IDs were issued to those eligible — less than 15% of everyone who was released. That meant most were left with only their prison IDs. While state law mandates local and state social services agencies must accept prison IDs to receive benefits, the IDs expire in 30 days and they are not legal identification for most purposes.
“If you’re trying to apply for a job, are you really going to hand somebody a prison ID to suggest that not only are you formerly incarcerated, but you’re very recently formerly incarcerated?” said Amos Caley, an organizer with New Jersey Prison Justice Watch.
Former prisoner Martin Fitzgerald, 50, said he didn’t receive a non-driver ID even though the DOC had a copy of his birth certificate and Social Security card, which combined with his prison ID meet the eligibility requirements. “I need to get a job. I’m going to need to be able to contribute,” said Fitzgerald, who has since set up a Gmail account and applied to jobs online. “I give myself within a month’s time to at least have my foot in the door and some type of employment.”
Listen to Matt Katz and Karen Yi’s report on NJ’s prisoner release on WNYC:
DOC spokeswoman Liz Velez said those who met the MVC’s six-point identification requirements received non-driver IDs. And two MVC vans were also stationed at prisons for four days last month to process IDs.
State law also requires other assistance for released prisoners, such as two weeks of medication and 30-day prescriptions upon release, that some said was not always provided.
Prescriptions, though, can’t be filled without ID, and often can’t be paid for without Medicaid, which also requires ID.
“What I’m seeing right now is no different than what it always is, which is an incredibly difficult experience for every single person that comes home, whether that’s because of fines and fees or because of lack of housing or lack of adequate transportation or difficulty finding income,” said Caley.
Instead, reentry workers were forced to help prisoners on the fly. They stopped newly released men as they disembarked DOC vans and buses, most wearing the tell-tale grey sweatpants of the formerly incarcerated, carrying mesh bags with their Bibles and masks. The volunteers wooed the former prisoners with coffee, pizza, and sometimes a Newport or Marlboro cigarette, then offered the men help they didn’t necessarily know they needed. They had debit cards with leftover money from their commissary accounts, for example, but they needed to use volunteers’ phones to activate them.
Wells had neither an arrangement for housing nor a voucher for food, which state officials indicated they would provide. “We’re gonna get you some help,” said Deborah Johnson, a reentry volunteer who met Wells at the Pennsauken Transit Center. “Between me and everybody else out here, you won’t be sitting out here all day.”
Almost 12 hours after he was released, the Volunteers of America tracked down Wells’s sister, and dropped him off with her. His relatives, it turned out, had been waiting for him at the prison gates all along, while he waited at a faraway train station.
James Magilton, a paraplegic with Parkinson’s disease, was left at a Trenton train station with no way to get back to his family in Michigan. “They put me on the street after 15 years. No preparation, no nothing,” Magilton said. “They took me out, put me on the corner and said, ‘Goodbye.’”
Officials at social service agencies now say they are preparing for a spike in homelessness and drug overdoses in the coming weeks from recently released former prisoners.
Dan Lombardo, the CEO of the Volunteers of America Delaware Valley, said his agency normally gets as much as six months to work with inmates before they leave prison to set them up with housing and other services. With last week’s mass release, though, they had no information about who was getting out. He said his nonprofit helped 48 released prisoners with nowhere to go. That amounted to about a third of those they came into contact with that day.
“They’re being sent back to a community that they haven’t seen in, say, 15 years. Well, everything’s different,” Lombardo said. “Bus stops are different, the community is different; the buildings are different. The environment that you remember when you left is completely different.”
That can be disorienting and destabilizing, Lombardo explained. He said his group is seeking information from the state for the next batch of releases under the COVID release law so it can make contact with prisoners while they’re still locked up, “to minimize the chances of folks falling through the cracks when they leave.”
About 200 prisoners released last week were immediately re-arrested by other law enforcement agencies for outstanding warrants. About half were picked up on immigration violations by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and some were arrested for fines that they couldn’t pay while in prison. Lombardo said minor violations should be cleared before they’re released. “Give us a chance to clean that stuff up,” he said.
Former New Jersey Governor Jim McGreevey, now the chairman of the New Jersey Reentry Corporation, said that “overall the release was a success,” but “there are systemic challenges that we can readily address and improve our performance.”
“Identification is key,” he said. “Identification is a portal by which all other benefits are secured. To not have identification in New Jersey in 2021 is almost to subject oneself to an inability to operate.” As the state continues to free more prisoners under the early release COVID law, McGreevey said the process for securing identification needs to start earlier, long before people walk free.
Velez, the spokeswoman for the DOC, said the agency worked with county boards of social services and other departments to connect people with emergency shelter and provide food stipends to those who needed it. “The department’s social services team meets with each individual to identify their needs and provide linkages to resources within the community to ensure a continuum of services, such as medical, mental health and addiction services,” she said in an email.
State agencies also filed applications for food stamps or general assistance for 1,200 prisoners and started the Medicaid process for another 1,150, a spokesperson for the Department of Human Services said. The spokesperson added that people with prior addiction issues or who were previously incarcerated worked with inmates who had substance abuse issues prior to their release as part of an existing program.
“It went a heck of a lot better than we were prepared for,” Murphy said on WNYC’s Ask the Governor. “That doesn’t mean it’s necessarily perfect but absolutely this remains a multi-government department, full-on effort.”
Another 1,000 prisoners will be released by January, ultimately reducing the prison population by more than 30% since the pandemic began. Earlier this year the state also released 1,200 people from state prisons who were eligible for parole and older than 60 years old, or had medical conditions and that put them at greater risk for COVID-19. More than 1,600 others have paroled out or completed their sentences.
“It’s a blessing—I can’t even believe it,” said Rob Terzano, seconds after he walked off of a DOC bus last week, securing his freedom. “I’m still getting used to the reality of getting out of prison right now.” He spent about a decade in prisons and a halfway house, and was headed to his mom’s home in Sussex County. He hoped to get a job doing HVAC work. And he also wanted to get a loan for school. “I don’t know how to do that—I gotta Google it,” he said.
Terzano said he felt “awkward” being out. “I’ve been in a cell for a long time,” he said.
Karen Yi covers New Jersey. Matt Katz reports on air at WNYC about immigration, refugees, hate, and national security. You can follow him on Twitter at @mattkatz00.